I first became aware of Lea Pica from a Data Storytelling webinar facilitated by the data training platform DataCamp in October 2023. One thing that first piqued my interest about Lea, other than her impressive credentials, was her journey into the realm of data visualisation from a completely different field. Her background before analytics and data was as a professional performer in musical theatre. From there, she took a different direction into marketing and analytics before crafting her current expertise in data storytelling — which now includes running storytelling workshops and advising organisations. Indeed, the path that many of us follow, including myself, to some extent, goes:
(1) something completely unrelated to the field of data visualisation,
(2) data analytics / visualisation,
(3) data storytelling.
The wide variety of skills and experience in part 1 of our career paths is one of the many things that I love about our field of data visualisation, as it enriches the skills and talent we bring collectively to the field.
As part 3 becomes increasingly important in many of our roles, often the skills needed to present and communicate data by means of a data story don’t come from part 2, but rather from part 1. Part 1 for me was simply programming scripts for online surveys and back-room, low-level number crunching in market research — job skills that had little (or nothing) to do with data storytelling. And yet, data storytelling is now a major part of my work as a dashboard-building professional. For this reason, among others, I felt like I was the target audience for Lea’s new book, Present Beyond Measure: Design, Visualize, and Deliver Data Stories That Inspire Action. The book focuses on how businesses can implement and integrate compelling data storytelling techniques into their operations to communicate data and ideas more effectively.
Lea sets out the aims of the book really clearly and what we can expect to gain from her insights. In much the same way that the best way to learn how to present good charts is to see examples of bad ones (we’ve all seen our fair share of truncated bars and exploding 3D pie charts, for example), Lea wastes no time in introducing us to the concept of Data Presentation Zombification, where data is displayed in a way that turns the audience into zombies. Glazed eyeballs, vacant expressions, and “browser tab eye dart” are exactly what we don’t want. By introducing the “bad” in familiar terms, we are poised to understand how to get to “good”.
Data storytelling as a concept can be a divisive term, where some might argue over the nuances of the definition, and some might consider it an over-used buzzword in the visualisation industry. But this book makes it clear from the start that its focus is on the skill of delivering engaging PowerPoint presentations (or any other slide-based tool) that communicate data-based information. This clarification helps define the structure and intention of the book.
The book is divided into four “Acts.” This organisation is such a great idea – instilling the idea of a performance throughout, and comparing the book in its entirety to a story. Put differently, reading the book from start to finish becomes the telling/presentation of a story. After the prologue, Act I focuses on conceptualisation, planning, and the data story structure. Act II focuses on slide design, layout, graphics, and emphasis. Act III focuses on visualising data and the PICA protocol (Purpose, Insight, Context, Aesthetics), and Act IV covers delivery, public speaking, and communication mastery. After every Act, an intermission summarises and reviews learning from the previous Act.
Arranging the content of the book in this way allows the reader to focus most on the areas they feel they have most to learn from depending on their own experience profile. For me, Act I offered crucial skills and advice on how to brainstorm, structure, and design a presentation and its structure whilst considering the concepts of storytelling, and Act II hit so many areas of experience that I personally lack, including how to set up, design, and execute slides and presentations.
My favourite and most memorable quote of the book, “Purpose starts with a Q,” refers to the principle that every powerful and impactful data story begins with a clear and focused question.
Act III was more familiar territory for me through my role as an analyst and data visualisation designer, but in the presentation of these principles through the PICA acronym, I knew I was getting a unique perspective! The “Purpose” chapter gave me my favourite and most memorable quote of the book, “Purpose starts with a Q,” referring to the principle that every powerful and impactful data story begins with a clear and focused question.
Act IV offered skills needed to present and communicate, which I could personally spend more time learning and practising in order to deliver clearly and effectively. I mention “practice” because it’s an important step (along with learning, iteration, reflection, among others) in absorbing the material in the book.
Present Beyond Measure is a great resource to persevere with, containing practical resources in every chapter, which means that readers have the opportunity to complete the sandbox exercises and assignments throughout the book in order to review and improve their own data presentation skills.
This book left me inspired to make better presentations, with the knowledge that there was enough content in here to one day reach the author’s heights and become a TED speaker one day. All I need to do is design much better presentations, create them in a much better way, fully understand the concepts of data storytelling to engage my audience, and present them with far more skill and confidence. Fortunately, the book has me covered for all of these things!